What does it take to fly into a heavily fortified jihadi terrorist nest to kill one of the most notorious, vicious, maniacal, and fanatical terrorists in the world? We ask a man who did: Navy SEAL Team Six hero, Rob O’Neill — the man who killed Osama Bin Laden.
On October 27th, President Donald Trump announced that the infamous ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was eliminated by US Army Delta special operations commandoes in Syria.
US Navy SEAL Rob O’Neill has been on over 400 combat missions in his seventeen years in the Navy. He was a member of the small, elite team that parachuted into the Indian Ocean to rescue Captain Richard Phillips from Somali pirates. O’Neill helped extract fellow SEAL, Marcus Luttrell, from Taliban controlled Afghanistan — a harrowing ordeal made into the Hollywood blockbuster, “Lone Survivor.”
Most famously, O’Neill is the man who killed Osama Bin Laden.
Die Weltwoche editor Urs Gehriger and American correspondent Amy Holmes contact O’Neill for his reaction to the al-Baghdadi raid. Holmes has known O’Neill since 2012 when he left the service.
The 43-year-old trained sniper tells Die Weltwoche how it feels to be face to face, gun pointed at the head of a world historic villain.
Rob O’Neill, what was your reaction when you heard Army Delta Force had taken out al-Baghdadi?
Complete pride. The love that I have for those guys, it made me proud to be, not just American, but proud of the mission. It wasn’t just the Americans that were able to do it. It was the entire coalition. Those guys had the bravery to get out of the helicopters and land knowing they’re going into a fight.
As civilians, it is unimaginable the type of preparation it takes for that kind of mission. What are the biggest risks?
The biggest risks that we face are the flight in, and the entire building blowing up when you get there.
The men that went in, they’re ready for it. They don’t need to be trained up. They know each other. They know how to effectively communicate with each other.
The only time Al-Qaeda, or ISIS, or any one of those groups can beat us is when they shoot at us while we’re in the air. We get on the ground with them? We’re going to win.
Were you ready to die when you flew in to get Bin Laden?
We accepted it. We didn’t want it. We’re going to do everything we can to avoid it. But we accepted it.
If I don't go on this mission, but live to be 90-years-old? If I could give back every day from 90 to 33, would I give it all to be part of the mission? Yes. I would. That’s why I do this.
When you got the call that it’s “Go time,” how did that feel?
We’ve done it so many times. When I went on the Bin Laden raid, I had gone on 400 missions. The only difference is we gave each other hugs before we got into the helicopters.
But even when we found out it was Bin Laden, there wasn’t cheering. There weren’t high fives. We’re professionals. “Okay. Where are we going now? Let's go.” That’s it.
The way we thought about the people who jumped out of the towers. The same way Delta thought about Kayla. She’s not supposed to be there. We’re supposed to be there, and we’re going. That’s it.
[Kayla Mueller is an American human rights activist who was taken captive in 2013 by ISIS in Aleppo, Syria. She was raped and tortured by al-Baghdadi and his men for eighteen months before being executed in 2015. The Delta Force raid on al-Baghdadi was named in her honor.]
What is the key to a successful mission like the al-Baghdadi raid?
The key to a mission is effective communication. And the realization that if your plan isn’t going to work, don’t over plan, just be prepared.
We have an acronym: “KISS” — Keep It Simple, Stupid. Just keep it simple.
You don’t need to yell. When he goes left, I go right. He goes right, I go left. If he points up, I point down. That’s how we do it. That’s how Delta does it.
We all have the same tactics. Meaning, you could take British SAS, British SBS, Delta Force, throw them in the mix, and we’re all going to know what to do because we’ve all trained together. We’re smart, and we keep it simple.
What’s going through your mind as you’re closing in on the target?
When I saw Bin Laden’s house, after weeks of looking at in on imagery, my initial thought was, “This is fucking cool!”
And I was laughing because watching the movies, reading the books before that mission, I was like, “We're about to do some serious Navy SEALS shit!”
But getting closer and closer to Bin Laden, it turned away from being cool.
I was never brave. I thought of it more like, “Let's just get it over with. I know what I'm doing. I’m tired of thinking about it.”
We see a lot of Hollywood depictions (and congratulations on your movie deal, by the way) of commando raids going in with night time vision goggles. What is the biggest misconception?
The biggest misconception is that everybody there is this extreme tough guy. We are not guys that, when a war starts, they break the glass and “Rambo” jumps out.
Granted, we have our 1% of complete physical phenomenons. But most guys are normal guys, like me from Montana, or buddies from Iowa or Florida, who just get it. These are normal people who pay their mortgage and cut their own lawns. And then when they get a text message, they jump into the Indian Ocean. These are normal guys — with real families, real mothers, real wives, real kids — who get it.
What I learned as a Navy SEAL from Montana — and I worked with guys from Long Island and Bel Air and Miami — it doesn’t matter what you look like. It doesn’t matter where you're from. You can do anything you want, as long as you keep a positive attitude. Keep your head in the game, and you can do it.
I’ve had people ask me, “I want to be a Navy SEAL, but I’m not good at pull-ups. How do I get better at pull-ups?”
My answer is simple: “Do more pull-ups.”
It’s funny. In interviews, they always say, “You don’t look like a Navy SEAL...”
And I say, “What does a Navy SEAL look like?”
[Holmes] Like “The Rock”! Dwayne Johnson!
We don’t have The Rock. But I see why women find him attractive.
You told me years ago that another thing Hollywood gets wrong is having everybody yelling at each other: “Go, go, go, go, go!”
All that does is add chaos. I would see trainees go through one of our training sites, point their gun up and yell, “Stairwell!” It's like, “Motherfucker, you pointed up. I’m assuming it’s a stairwell. Shut up.”
The key to effective communication is everybody stop yelling. Look at the guy in front. What is he doing? When someone needs help, you realize it based on their body language. That’s it.
Stress is a choice. You can make a decision every day in your life: Calm or chaos. I choose calm.
During the raid that killed al-Baghdadi, a military dog got injured. President Trump tweeted his congratulations to the German Shepherd, that goes by the name “Conan,” for doing such a great job.
She was a Belgian Malinois...
Ah, yes. Thank you. How important are dogs for such missions?
The dogs are what I would call, “a force multiplier.” Whenever a canine gets killed in combat, he or she has saved five lives.
When we’re in a spot where we’re not sure what’s happening, the dog will go in and look. Not only will the dog look, the dog has a camera on its back, and we can monitor from outside.
The dog is so smart that it can go up to a door and, based on smell, it can decide if it’s a bomb or a person behind the door. It can tell the difference between a combatant and a non-combatant. If somebody runs, they can chase them down and get them. They’re willing to fight to the death to save us.
The best way it was explained to me is the dog considers us a pack. His handler — he or she — is “Dad,” and the rest of us are uncles. We’re a pack. The Belgian Malinois are predators.
And back at the base?
When there’s not a mission — say, the weather is bad in Afghanistan — we’ll sit on couches and watch TV, and the dog will sit with us. But the handler will say, when the dog puts his paw on you, he’s not being friendly. He’s being dominant. So, push his hand off. Make sure there’s always a pecking order.
Once we put the gear on, it’s time to work. No more petting. We go.
In Virginia Beach, there’s this really nice memorial with the names of the fallen. They have a piece of the memorial from 9/11 that happened to break off in the shape of a trident, the special insignia that Navy SEALS wear.
If you put your back onto that memorial, up and to the right, about 12 feet away, there’s a memorial for all the dogs that have been killed in combat. Because, when you’re going into battle, the dogs are always in front and to the right.
It’s amazing how smart and loyal they are. Like Cairo, the dog on the Bin Laden raid. There’s a book coming out about Cairo — the life of the hero. Cairo has as many silver stars as I do! I have two, and he has two!
Turning back to politics, in Trump's press conference on the al-Baghdadi raid, he described Baghdadi as whimpering and crying and screaming (although there has been some controversy over whether or not that was the case).
How important is it to describe al-Baghdadi as a “coward” and a “dog,” in terms of psychological warfare?
I wasn’t there. So, I can’t say how Baghdadi was reacting. It might be important to show potential recruits that, no matter where you are, we’re going to find you and you're going to die afraid.
But that’s what President Trump does. He’s non-conventional. That’s the way he talks.
I, personally, think that the last thing that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi said was, “Allahu akbar.” Because they are true believers. People say he killed his three children? He didn't see it that way. He was martyring them, bringing them to paradise. People don’t understand. This is a real ideology. Some of these fanatics think this way.
As for President Trump, he had an 800-word speech to talk about it. He turned it to an 8,000-word speech, which is like a college thesis. I don’t think he necessarily needed to say how the guy died. He died. He was killed by very brave men who were brought in by very brave men and women.
I think we can be better off if we don’t get into the details, like that. But, again, I’m not the president. I’m not the vice president. It doesn’t matter how it happened. It happened. It’s great.
Do you think it has an impact to describe al-Baghdadi as a ‘dog,’ which in Islam is a reviled creature?
I’m not sure describing him that way helps. But the fact that a dog killed him [chased al-Baghdadi down] is amazing. I love that!
One of my favorite sayings I just came up with is: People tell me, “Don't spike the football!” I’m like, “Fuck you! I’m the one in the end-zone!”
Seriously, I just wish everyone could concentrate on the positivity of this [the al-Baghdadi mission]. This is a really good thing. And thanks to the intelligence, we killed the number two the next day.
Trump got tremendous criticism for pulling US forces out of Syria leaving allied Kurdish fighters behind. Nevertheless, the Kurdish forces assisted the US military in hunting down al-Baghdadi.
Was it a mistake for Trump to leave long term US allies vulnerable? What signal does that send to other allies, or potential partners, for the future?
It’s such a complex issue. We never said, “We’re going to go in and liberate the Kurds.” We said, “We’re going in and kill ISIS.” Which we did, and the Kurds were a major factor in it.
Now, you can’t blame President Trump for what the Turks are doing. Turkey is supposed to be a NATO ally! We should be able to say, “Hey, Turkey. Stop cleansing people based on ethnicity!” It’s not Trump’s fault.
President Trump is the only president who I’ve never worked for. I worked for President Clinton, President Bush, and President Obama. President Trump is the first one to not say, “Well, this is the way we’ve always done it.”
I can’t judge whether that [withdrawing US troops from northern Syria] was a good idea. I know we’re going to protect the oil fields. We have special forces in there. We’re protecting the oil fields, not so we can keep the oil, so that the Iranians know that we can.
It’s so complex. As a soldier who fought for many, many years, I kind of look around and ask, “Hey, everybody else. How about you do something?”
How would you compare President Obama’s announcement of Osama Bin Laden’s demise to President Trump’s announcement about al-Baghdadi?
President Obama is so articulate. Short and sweet. President Trump likes to get “the base.”
I’ve seen both sides. I have people on the far right who yell at me on social media all the time because they refuse to believe that President Obama gave the order to kill Bin Laden. I have people, now, on the far left who hate to believe that President Trump gave the order to kill Baghdadi.
I like the way President Obama did it, and I’ve never had a problem with President Obama in the way he handled us, militarily. Less is more.
The point that we’re trying to make the terrorists understand is that it doesn’t matter how bad you think you are, or how well you can hide, we will come get you.
What do you say to Kayla Mueller’s parents, her mother Marsha, in particular, who said she believes that if President Obama had been more decisive, Kayla might still be alive.
You know what? I don’t know. President Obama was in a tough time because, obviously, that just started with the pulling out of Iraq.
I’m one of the people who says, “We should never have invaded Iraq. We should never have left Iraq.” ISIS was a result of us leaving.
Could he [Obama] have gotten Kayla? I don't know. Should Kayla have gone there? No.
I tell people all the time: We’ve had people murdered in Morocco. People will say, “I don't have a problem with them.” But they have a problem with you!
What happened to Kayla is… I don't have any word for it.
The Washington Post called al-Baghdadi an “austere religious scholar” who died at 48? Bullshit! He was a murderous, torturing, rapist, horrifying person. Delta Force went in there. The objective was Kayla.
How important was it to call the operation “Kayla” after Kayla Mueller?
That’s why we wore FDNY, NYPD, and PAPD [Port Authority Police Department] patches into Bin Laden’s house. That’s how important it is. Not that we need it, but it reinforces why we’re there.
Bin Laden was behind the biggest terror attack on the Western world in history. How did you feel carrying the responsibility to take him out?
It wasn’t on me. I was part of the team. But when President Bush said, “Freedom itself was attacked this morning by a faceless coward, and freedom will be defended,” he meant everyone. And we were everyone. We were 23 guys who had the responsibility of everyone on our shoulders.
It was an honor. We accepted death. But this is what we were going to do. It was a normal mission. Normal flight, bigger audience.
When you entered Bin Laden’s room, and you saw the man, what was your first thought?
He’s taller than I thought. He’s skinnier than I thought. He’s older. His hair is grey. He’s not surrendering. He’s got a suicide vest. He’s going to blow me up. I need to shoot him in the head. That’s it.
How did you feel when you shot him in the head and blew apart his face?
I shot him three times in the head. He fell down, and he was pushing his wife, Amal, toward me. I could tell she was a threat, so I moved her. I put her on the bed. And then, his three-year-old son was standing there. I looked down at this kid and, as a father, I thought, “Man, this poor kid has nothing to do with this.” I picked him up and put him next to his mom.
Other Navy Seals came in the room. At this point, I can hear Osama Bin Laden taking his last breath. I’m standing there, on a mission where I’m supposed to die, and one of my buddies comes up to me and says, “Hey, man. Are you good?”
I say, “No. What do we do now?”
He laughs and taps my shoulder. He says, “Now, we find the computers. We do this every night. You’ve done it a hundred of times.”
I say, “You’re right. Holy shit! [pause]. I’m back.”
He tells me, “You just killed Osama Bin Laden. Your life has changed. Now, let’s get to work.”
What was most striking about Bin Laden’s room?
The lack of suicide vests. There was nothing there. I don’t know? Maybe he died of complacency?
He didn’t hear you coming?
I think he heard us coming. There’s an interview with Amal bin Laden. She says that he told her, “They're not here for you. They’re here for me. Leave.”
It’s interesting to read her interview, because our interviews are the same but coming from opposite directions.
You took the body of Osama Bin Laden with you. What was it like to fly into the darkness with the dead top terrorist at your feet?
Well, I put him in a different helicopter. We had DNA in one helicopter, the body in the other.
When I jumped into the helicopter, the Navy SEAL who initiated the fire to shoot the Somali pirates to rescue Captain Richard Philipps, he was next to me. He handed me a can of tobacco and said, “Take one of mine. Now you know what it feels like to be a hero.” I think that was awesome! [laughs]
What is a hero to you?
A hero is a guy who runs into the Twin Towers. A hero is a guy running up the stairs when people are coming down to live but he’s going up to die. Anyone doing their job to save people: that’s a hero. I’m not hero. I was just was at the right place at the right time.
People have asked me why I’m famous. I say, “I'm not famous. I just shot someone who’s famous.” [laughs]
Do you miss it?
No. I don’t. I don’t need the adrenaline.
I do miss the skydiving. We used to go to Arizona and skydive and hang out at a bar called “The Trident” owned by Nelson Miller, a retired Navy SEAL. I miss that. But I’m good.
How has your life changed since?
People want to take a lot of selfies with me. [laughs]
Last night, I was in a hotel in a kind of small city. There was a bar down the street. I go to watch the Astros vs. Nationals [baseball] game. I walk in, and all 22 people in the bar recognize me. [laughs]
Have you ever paid for a drink since the Bin Laden raid?
Yes. I like being the fastest guy with the credit card. I like buying drinks. [laughs]
You know what else I like? I’m able to go on all the networks, now. I go to Fox News to piss off my liberal friends. I go to CNN to piss off my conservative friends.
When you killed Bin Laden, there was unity. Do you have a feeling that America and the West have lost this unity?
Yes, they have. They hate President Trump so much that they’re trying to justify terrorists. And it’s a shame.
I think, as Americans, we need more [military] veterans on all sides of the aisle as opposed to “resist, resist, resist.”
I’m an American. I’m not a Republican or a Democrat.
You’re not going to win an argument by agreeing with everyone in the room. You’re not going to win an argument by shutting people down. If you’re the smartest guy in the room, you’re in the wrong fucking room!
Do you think that the current sniping at, and piling on of, Donald Trump after this incredible mission that should be a moment of celebration hurts us in the war against radical Islamic terrorism?
It doesn’t necessarily hurt us in the war against radical Islamic terrorism because they’re going to hurt us regardless.
What hurts America is that China and Russia are laughing their asses off at us because we’re so childish and so politically correct. We can’t decide anything. They’re stealing from us, laughing at us, taking everything they can. It’s just shame, because this partisan bullshit just makes us look bad.
As a Navy SEAL, I would tell my guys, “If you want to be fast, slow down. Take a deep breath. Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.”
That’s what it should be here. Instead of shutting down the speaker, listen to him. Maybe you’ll understand him? Maybe you won’t? But that’s what you should be doing.
You took out Bin Laden. Your colleagues took out al-Baghdadi. But there's still so much undone. The Middle East remains unstable.
How long do you think will this war against Islamic terror will keep us and the West busy?
It’s a generational war. But I’m very positive because I’ve always said that, as important these raids are, as important as killing these masterminds of terror are, we’re not going to win by bombs and bullets. The way we’re going to win is the younger generation of liberal Muslims who realize that all we have here are piles of ash and dead, tortured bodies. I don't want this. I like the Internet. I like music. I don’t like people getting beheaded. It’s going to come from within.
We’re never going to instill democracy. But I’m hopeful. I’m an optimist. I’d rather wake up with my feet on the ground, read the obituaries, see my name not there, give someone a kiss, and have a great fucking day.
As a former US Navy SEAL Team Six member, how would you say Army Delta Force compares?
The way that I describe Delta Force, and I’m not even trying to be humble at all, the first time I saw a Delta Force, I looked over and went, “Holy shit! That’s Delta Force!” [laughs]
I remember thinking, “I see why they're attractive. Look at these guys!”
They’re like Chuck Norris from the movies. They’re amazing. They’re so professional, so cool. My guys are, too. But just looking over at the sign-up sheet for Delta, it was like, “I’m working with Delta Force. I made it.” Mad respect.
Any politics in your future?
Absolutely not! I will never run for office. I’m not partisan, at all. I will support Republicans. I will support Democrats.
I just went to a gala on Saturday, the night that Baghdadi was killed, with my friend, Kristin Beck, who’s a transgender Navy SEAL. He fought for 20 years. Now, she is a transgender activist. If she wants to run as a Democrat, I will support her.
But, to answer your question: I don’t want the pay cut, and I don’t need the goddamn scrutiny.
Yes, you’ve lived through enough scrutiny…
If they can find dirt on Jared Kushner, they can definitely find dirt on this guy!
You took a US flag back home after you killed Bin Laden.
Yes. We carried it on the raid.
You brought it back from the mission, then you signed it and presented it to President Obama. Is there something from that mission that is really close to your heart that you will keep for your lifetime?
That was that minute when we handed President Obama the flag that we framed and every operator had signed on the back. When we handed him that, he was speechless.
He couldn’t think of what to say. He’s looking at this flag that we carried into Bin Laden’s house for him, and he looks over [to Joe Biden].
He says, “Mr. Vice President, Do you think I can find a good place to hang this?”
The vice president says, “Yes. I think this will look nice in your presidential library.”
The president goes, “Fuck that! This is going in my bedroom!”
That was a cool week. That was a nice roll when everyone came together. We had Republicans in the Pentagon, Democrats in White House.
You got to figure President Obama rolled the dice. Every first term president wants a second term, and he said, “Fuck it.” He rolled the dice because the mission was the right thing to do.
If we fail, he’s not winning. He didn’t do it to win. He did it because it was the right thing to do.
I’m just a big believer that even though we might disagree, nobody in the White House ever is doing anything to destroy the country. We’re all trying to do the right thing.
How do your former military colleagues feel about the current commander in chief?
Honestly, they love him. I know a lot of people don’t want to hear that, but they love him.
When President Trump came to office, he dealt with ISIS like he did with the al-Baghdadi speech: “Here's what you’re doing. Go do it. Go kill.”
They love him.
How is your new bride? [O’Neill married Jessica Halpin on Cape Cod, Massachusetts in 2017]
My wife is turning thirty, next month, and she’s a little nervous about it.
Do you have any advice for her?
Yes. Thirty is sexy! [laughs]
She said, “Well, I'm turning thirty, and I'm nervous. What do you think about thirty?”
I said, “Thirty? You’re now a woman!”
[Holmes] I would tell her, “Thirty? I don’t even remember it.”
Yes. “Thank you for not divorcing me, yet!”
What do your daughters understand about what you did now that they’ve gotten a bit older?
The girls know that they’re not allowed to talk about it. They know they’re not allowed to be associated with it. But now they’re at ages — I’m not to say their ages — where they’re like, “Dad, if we come out as the daughters of the guy who killed Bin Laden, we might get a reality show!”
I’m like, “No.”
They say, “It works for the Kardashians!”
Just what you want for them: to be like the Kardashians.
If it gets us a private jet, maybe we’re onto something!
You still have to protect their identity?
Yes. You only need to be wrong once. But they’re good. They’re doing a lot of good stuff. I have to hide them, but they’re doing well.
They’re not afraid to ask, “Hey, Dad. I need a pair of Gucci shoes. Can you hook a girl up?”
Do they get the shoes?
Always. I never say “No” to my kids.